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The evolution of the Xarkis Festival

By Melissa Hekkers

The Xarkis Festival was an impulse to respond creatively to a more general crisis that began to plague the island back in 2012, a need organisers deemed necessary for a design-led intervention. A festival aimed at community empowerment and initially conceived through a visceral interpretation of the economic crisis.

Several contributing factors were put forward by Festival founder Christina Skarpari, including the “primary observation of the effects of the crisis upon community members in close proximity, as well as secondary observations like local demonstrations against the financial haircuts imposed by Troika and mass media dissemination, (and, in retrospect, sometimes dramatisation) across the wider society of Cyprus”.

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“During this time, efforts were made to gain further insight into the socio-psychological effects that such crises may have. In terms of unemployment, for instance, the analogous drop in income is only part of the difficulties which manifest with economic adversity. Other factors such as loss of social relationships and self-esteem which are affiliated with work are often especially hard to cope with,” adds Skarpari.

“This, in combination with observations on materialistic and consumerist tendencies, wherein locals would often spend more than what they had, led to the idea that this phenomenon was more than an economic crisis … a crisis of values. The ‘reaction’ thus meant resisting the trend, and trying to shift the focus on initiatives that encouraged the creation of a creative and social economy instead,” she says.

Five years down the line, the Xarkis Festival opens its doors to the public on August 19, with Skarpari discussing the initiative’s evolution more in depth with the Cyprus Weekly, while also elaborating on its current stance.

Cyprus Weekly: How do you think the festival managed to ‘react’ to the general crisis you mention?

Christina Skarpari: For the purposes of the project, a design activist role was initially adopted and a decision was made to design an assembly whereby communities were brought together in novel ways that might offer up thoughts on self-sufficient and sustainable futures. This festival design aimed to build resilience and catalyse relationships among communities to activate mobility and the aforementioned social, creative economy.

Back in 2013, the first Festival was proposed as a new form of co-design process and socio-material assembly. It was driven through the cooperation and exchange of knowledge between designers and local stakeholders. The title chosen for the project, Xarkis, came from the ancient Greek word ‘ex arhis’ and means ‘from the beginning’. In oral Cypriot dialect, and spoken as a verb, this word has a second meaning, which is slow or inefficient. Thus, the project, starting from the ambiguity of its chosen title, aimed to spur controversy amongst the local community and inaugurate a dialogue – through self-reflection and critical thinking – about personal roles within the context of the downturn.

Today, the feeling is still strong and this initiative is very much alive and close to the hearts of local community members. Through its realisation, a number of people are actively exploring, providing constructive critique and celebrating aspects of local culture and heritage. Significantly, they are often engaging in a meaningful dialogue about Cypriotness with people of different ages, professional and educational backgrounds and we feel that this inter-communal interaction is fundamental in light of community coexistence and social cohesion.

CW: What stages did the festival go through in order to reach its current standing?

CS: The Festival had to go through several learning curves in order to reach this feeling of maturity. For one, in 2013 it started off as a two-day social experiment, which was in part activated in an academic context, and through a design activist point of view. Back then, any form of social impact was welcome, but long-term sustainable achievements were not anticipated, as Xarkis Festival was initially intended as a one-off experiment.

Fast forward five years, I would say that we’ve gone past some of the temptations that come with becoming a publicly well-known, annual event. We choose to stay small, independent, non-profit and work closely with local communities, while also fostering cross-cultural collaborations between creative practitioners in Cyprus and abroad. Moreover, we are now taking parts of the festival as a starting point to further collaborations with local community members, outside of the Festival season and extended throughout the year.

CW: Aside from two days of cultural and interactive events with experiential workshops, music, open- air cinema, audio walks and installations of space; you mention an experimental ‘ziafettin’ as the climax of the Festival. What is this?

CS: We’ve had the experimental ‘ziafettin’ at the back of Xarkis’ brain for the past two years, and are finally ready to share it with friends and collaborators. In essence, it takes as a starting point the traditional ‘ziafettin’, which is the word for the local fiestas that were particularly popular in the past, and are still being practised occasionally – mostly in rural areas, on the occasion of celebrations such as weddings, among other events. A big part of this fiesta entails the improvisation and co-creation of musicians, which is something we want to endorse.

It is entitled ‘experimental’, on the basis that we’re not attempting a traditional reproduction of the ‘ziafettin’ but instead, have gathered together an intergenerational group of artists, comprised of traditional, Cypriot folk musicians, with young musicians that have influences from the experimental, contemporary scene. We hope that the result will be a harmonious blend of both.

CW: Collaborators are selected based on their contribution to social and creative groups or communities. What kind of creative groups and communities are being supported?

CS: Through this Festival, we are supporting educators and academics who are active contributors in fields such as socially-engaged art and design, people who explore folk and vernacular culture in unconventional and meaningful ways, locals who aspire to preserve cultural, tangible and intangible heritage, and industry practitioners who explore their fields through innovative, creative practices and who are interested in making a positive social impact.

CW: What was the initial need to found a festival based on the concept of social sustainability?

CS: This initial need to create such a festival was based on the rationale that festival experiences could be perceived as tools for community empowerment. Back in 2013, when it started off as a self-initiated project at the MA course of Communication Design at Central Saint Martins, I began to contemplate my role as a designer. I conducted research on existing design-led interventions, including events and festivals which aimed to empower citizens’ capabilities. Projects that were referenced were highly participatory, had empathy towards their audiences and preconceived their sustainable futures on a community scale.

In my research, I found out that numerous authors and practitioners were already discussing whether and how large-scale changes could be enabled by co-design processes and new assemblies, whereby both designers and citizens could have purposeful roles. The idea was to sustain the dialogue, by introducing an alternative strategy: a new form of a co-design process and assembly, which built resiliency and catalysed relationships among communities to spur a social, creative economy. The aim of the festival was twofold: to trigger considerations about life in a sustainable Cyprus and to reflect on how arts, design and craft could help people to envision and practise it. For the prototype of Xarkis Festival, I was operating as a design activist and a facilitator, whereby I wished to support ongoing initiatives.

CW: This year’s event focuses on the idea of ‘sympraxis’: the rejuvenation of traditional crafts and revival of interest in practising them in younger generations, so as to preserve and pass them down in meaningful ways over the years to come. Tell us more.

CS: ‘Sympraxis’ is, in one sense, synonymous to previous terms we have been using in the communication of many of our community actions in past years. For example, we have been talking about participatory design approaches since Xarkis Festival’s baby steps. This approach is proposed for projects aiming at vast and complicated transformation processes whereby “a multiplicity of small, diverse, participated initiatives, interact to achieve a larger vision”.

With this in mind, we feel that there is a need to continue to dedicate the Festival to the cause, as it is still relevant and needed in our communities. It is something we have always been involved with, but are now comfortable enough to simplify the terminology and articulate it within a press release, so as to spread the word and get more people to join in the cause.

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